Helman Elementary students planted dozens of pine trees Monday and Tuesday morning at Ashland Pond, the site adopted by their school for long-term study.

A tree is like a time capsule, telling the history of generations past who planted the seed, Marko Bey told a group of kindergarteners and fifth-graders standing on the banks of Ashland Pond. He held up a 3-foot pine tree that would be their time capsule, then directed the students' gaze to the pine towering behind them — a time capsule left to them from long ago.

Bey, the director of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, oversaw Helman Elementary students planting dozens of those pine time capsules Monday and Tuesday morning at the site adopted by their school for long-term study.

Lomakatsi has worked with Ashland school groups since 1998 to teach them about restoration ecology, but this is the first year an entire school has adopted a site.

Helman's commitment to Ashland Pond began last spring, when kindergarten teacher Mia Driscoll approached the PTA for $1,500 to start the project.

Driscoll lives near the pond, located where Ashland and Bear creeks meet less than half a mile from the school. She saw the pond as the perfect outdoor classroom to teach her students everything from environmental science to math, art and writing.

"It's endless what you can teach them," she said. "My dream is to start kids in kindergarten and do this through fifth grade so they have six years of connection to the earth."

Driscoll's class makes at least one trip a month to the 10-acre pond site. So far, her students have drawn maps of the area, written stories and learned about vultures after they saw one during a nature walk, she said. Older classes have studied salmon life cycles and wetlands through their use of the pond, which has five distinct ecological zones, such as oak savannah, woodlands and riparian areas.

Every class at the school made a trip to the pond this week to plant trees and native grasses and learn about invasive weeds and erosion control. The plant-a-thon was part of the larger Streamside Forest Recovery Week along Bear Creek hosted by Lomakatsi. It was also a fundraiser for Helman to continue the project beyond this year.

The school committed to at least one fundraiser a year, to cover costs such as blackberry removal and erosion control — projects the kids cannot do themselves. Lomakatsi crews have already removed eight acres of blackberry bushes, and the trees will provide shade, helping lower water temperatures for salmon spawning, Bey said.

In addition to the environmental improvement, working outside provides students with all kinds of real-life experience, Principal Susan Hollandsworth said.

"Anytime you get kids out in nature with restoration projects, there's so much learning that goes on," she said. "They're virtually as happy as can be when they're out in the woods and then they go back and write about it and draw about it."

Kids also learn skills such as teamwork and observation that apply far beyond stream restoration, she said.

"We're having a lot of fun," said second-grader Kara Monroe, 7. "My favorite thing is helping plant trees," which was echoed with "Yeah, mine too!" by two girls gathered around the tree they had just fixed in the ground.

That kind of reaction is what makes the project so valuable, Driscoll said.

"I do get excited because the truth is it's so easy to teach with this because the kids are oozing with enthusiasm," she said. "It's just amazing what little kids do when they're excited."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.